The beautiful vistas of Moscow you've seen on The Americans Season 5 are the real deal.
For the first time in the FX series' history, they went to the source to shoot some scenes they felt were imperative for the emotional journey Oleg Burov was taking.
We had a chance to chat with Costa Ronin, who plays Oleg, as well as Emmy-nominated executive producer and director for The Americans, Chris Long about their experience and Oleg's journey, of which they are a crucial part.
Please enjoy the conversation we shared below, which has been edited for clarity.
First of all, when did you film in Russia?
Chris: We filmed just after Thanksgiving and just prior to Christmas, so that would be post-Presidential election.
What did the Russians think of your filming there?
Chris: They'd seen the show. Is the show basically if they'd seen the show? Because they'd seen the show, really, but the show doesn't air in Russia. I don't know if it doesn't air because it's banned or if it doesn't air because the people who commission Russian TV programs didn't think the audience would be interested. I don't know the answer to that.
But they, the crew, found our show interesting. We didn't really get into, politically, where the show stood for them, but they definitely found it interesting. They were very flattering about the material we'd shot, both interiors and exteriors.
Chris, What made filming in Russia important for you?
Chris: They'd been talking about going to Russia since the start of The Americans. It's an obvious thing to do, you know? I love that the show takes place in Russia, and they wanted to go, yet everyone wanted to go for the right reasons, which is to broaden the scope of the piece and enhance the production value.
But only this season, when we wrote this one little emotional storyline for Oleg, for Costa's character, did it really scream for to go, it really called for us to go. So Joel, Joe and I sat down in the summer and started to figure out how the hell to do it.
They had some scripts by then and some outlines, and we identified the pieces from the episodes we wanted to do there, but it just felt exactly the right emotional moment to go. I think we wanted to go before, but we wanted to go for the right reasons, and like I said, this really felt like the right time to go.
Costa, you were Russian Born, but raised in Australia, is that right?
Costa: No. I was born and raised in Russia. I grew up in Russia.
Oh! You did! Good. Good.
Costa: Yeah, yeah. Born and bred. [chuckles] I was about 17 when I left.
So what was it like for you to be back and filming there?
Costa: It was amazing. Any time you take a show on the road, it's always exciting whether it's a play, a tour, a film, or a location spot. When you take a story where the story actually took place, it takes it to the next level. Creatively, it's better to film because we're able to tell the story of where it took place, where it belongs, and we're able to tell it with the help of the people who lived through that experience.
You know, you kind of look into those people's lives, the past that has happened to those people. You can't substitute that. You tap into a certain cultural DNA and mutual experience that you can't get anywhere else.
I noticed most of the filming for the Russian scenes was at night. Is there a reason for that?
Chris: Yeah, I mean, the storyline drove us toward the night. There was no production reason for it to be day or night. The storyline was written for night, and we shot it at night. For us, it made it in one way more challenging and one way easier.
More challenging because at night we need more lights and things like that and easier because night hides a lot of modern period sins. Moscow, like everywhere, has gone through enormous changes since 1984 and so it helped us hide a lot.
Also, by filming at night, and we shot in the dead of night – we were shooting scenes outside the Kremlin at five and six in the morning just before the sun came up and we had a lot of night because it's a long winter in Russia – and it also happened that there weren't that many people around and there wasn't much traffic on the streets. That was an enormous boon for us, as well. It was all written for night. There was no other reason. There wasn't a production reason; it was a creative reason.
Neither one of you could have possibly known when The Americans started that the political climate was going to end up where it is at this particular time and that you would end up filming in Russia. How do you feel about that? That everything has played out so perfectly for this particular storyline and Oleg's journey to be returning to Russia just as all of this is playing out?
Chris: Yeah, it's funny, and really, this is a boring answer, but it's a true answer. Nothing that is happening in the world is affecting the storyline on The Americans. You know, we decided to go before there was an election and we break our stories, Joel and Joe break our stories too far in advance that we don't react in any way to what the political climate is.
There is going to be no KGB Officer Putin showing up in our show. We obviously are benefiting from the amount of press that Russia is getting. We're not saying we're not benefiting from that, but we don't pay attention to it. It has nothing to do with the storyline of The Americans.
Isn't it odd that everything does come around again? People don't want to pay attention to history, but it's coming back.
Chris: You know, I was in Moscow in 1984, and experienced it then, which is the same period we're shooting, so that was strange for me. But we didn't talk about politics with our Russian crew, and there was only three of us who went from The Americans in the US and the rest of the crew was Russian.
Our EPs spoke English, and our producers spoke English, but we didn't sit around and talk about the state of the world and everything because filmmakers are filmmakers all over the world and we shared the language of film, and that's all we really wanted to do. No one really wanted to get into it. It was quite interesting. No one really wanted to talk about it.
One scene felt particularly significant, and that's when Oleg goes on the roof to burn the evidence tying him to Stan and get rid of the evidence. Why did you choose to film it the way you did, outside, on the roof and looking over the landscape?
Chris: From a character standpoint, when Oleg does that, he is burning the past. He is cleansing himself and moving on and making a decision in his head to do that.
It felt right to do that while he was overlooking his city. It felt right to do it where he could stare out at the landscape that he knew since he was a boy and make that decision, which was a huge decision for him. How did you feel, Costa, while doing that?
Costa: It's absolutely that. And seeing the lights of Moscow and seeing the monastery, it's a very spiritual experience. It's, in a sense, a rebuild of the person because he's been trying to break away from everything that happened for so long.
The first time when he came to the United States and the second time when he came back to Russia. He got to have time to process, pour through this, figure out his life and that was very much a grieving experience. In that scene, seeing the sky, seeing the monastery, seeing the crosses of Moscow, everything came back for him.
Chris: And by the way, half of that scene was shot in Brooklyn. So what we did was, the way we shot that scene was we did all the wide shots, Costa getting out onto the roof and all the close ups, and then we did the actual lighting of the tape in Brooklyn against a green screen.
So the moon that he looks upon is actually a Brooklyn moon. Well, that makes no sense. It's the moon. But it's shot from Brooklyn.
Costa: Two continents, two locations!
Chris: There ya go! Because we didn't want to burn the tape on the roof because it was a very tricky roof. There were sheets of ice up there, and it was very dangerous, and we went up there with a very small crew. It was a beautiful view with beautiful lights, but it was dangerous to be up there, so we decided on the day just to shoot the minimum amount of footage we needed to and for me to shoot plates and to shoot green screen when we got home to Brooklyn.
That kind of fits perfectly, though, for The Americans, doesn't it?
Chris: Yeah, exactly.
That perfect scene shot between the two countries seems to fit.
Chris: You know what? It felt exactly emotionally in line. [laughs]
I liked that explanation, and I'm wondering, is Oleg completely at peace with his decision to go back to Russia to start anew? Is he content? Would he rather be in America? Is he good trying to rid the USSR of corruption from where he is now? What's his journey like now as we roll into the last couple of episodes?
Costa: Well, what do you think?
[laughs] As a viewer, I'm torn! I can't tell. Everything is so subtle this season.
Costa: Good! Here's the thing. Oleg isn't different from any of us. Every single step of the way, there's a choice. The second step of the way are the consequences of the choices that we made. So now he's torn, just like you are, because just like you are because he doesn't know what's going to happen next.
First of all, he doesn't really know if Stan really initiated what it's said he initiated. Because you've got to remember that we live in the world of spies, where we live in the world where nothing is as it seems and everything can be a lie, and everything can be a trick.
So everything has to be a guess, he has to make those right, it's like an eternal chess game that never ends. So he's absolutely thrown, he doesn't know what's happening and all he's trying to do is be his best, and when we get to Season 5, we see those plays to be made on the board, and that's how I would describe it. Chris?
Chris: That's a perfect answer.
So how badly do you think the two men were hurt by not knowing about that friendship they were building. Is it like an allegory for what's happening between the two countries?
Chris: I think both those men are on the side of right and they both are stuck in an incredible situation where they're trying to be loyal to their own country and yet humanly correct with each other and emotionally correct with each other. Because I think they have an affinity for each other and a respect for each other because they do basically the same job, and yet they both are fiercely loyal to their own countries.
Costa: They both have an unwritten code that they follow. They're both men of honor. At times it may seem there were things they did against human nature, or you might think you wouldn't do things that way, but unless you're in exactly the same position with exactly the same facts, you have no idea what you would do.
And those two men experience life and experience those stresses with all those factors at play. There are certain things they have to do for work, but there are certain things they have to take home and cope with and deal with and have nightmares about and wake up with before long days. I think this season what we see more of is the similarity between the two characters.
And don't forget to tune into The Americans Season 5 Episode 12 tonight for more of the beautiful Russian vistas featuring Costa Ronin and directed by Chris Long, as it will contain the last of the large landmarks.
The title is "The World Council of Churches." Haven't we already seen that at least once during the season? Be here afterward for a full review. Thanks so much for reading!
Carissa Pavlica is the managing editor and a staff writer and critic for TV Fanatic. She's a member of the Critic's Choice Association, enjoys mentoring writers, cats, and passionately discussing the nuances of television and film. Follow her on Twitter and email her here at TV Fanatic.